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Should Utah change the way voters choose winners?

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Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — On Monday, Spencer Cox was declared the winner of the state’s GOP gubernatorial primary, having won 36.4% of the vote in a four-way race. 

And while no one should doubt the legitimacy of that victory, a natural question to ask is whether a little more than one-third of the vote ought to be enough. Does Cox now have any sort of a Republican mandate going into his general election contest with Democrat Chris Peterson? 

That question is even more applicable in Utah’s 1st Congressional District, where Blake Moore was declared the winner of the Republican primary with, as of Monday, just 30.92% of the vote, also in a four-person race.

Is it enough to simply say that democracy is messy and move on? Just about any election system has its flaws. We choose the president using the Electoral College, after all, and twice in this century that person has been the candidate who didn’t win the popular vote.

This isn’t the first time Utahns have declared winners of people with less than 50% of the vote. In 1992, Mike Leavitt won a three-way general election for governor with just 42.2% support.

But is this the best way? 

“Wouldn’t it be better if we could find a way to get to a majority?” Stan Lockhart asked me Tuesday. You would expect him to ask something like that. He’s a leader of Utah Ranked Choice Voting, a group that feels certain it has a better way.

But his idea seems a bit more plausible this week. So does the idea of requiring a runoff election if no one gets more than 50% the first time around. 

It’s not as if lawmakers didn’t see this coming. During the regular legislative session earlier this year, it looked as if as many as six people might qualify for the GOP gubernatorial primary. Political worry warts said the winner might walk away with as little as 25% of the votes.

But no one made a serious attempt to change the election system. One lawmaker proposed a bill that would have let parties return to the caucus-only system for nominating candidates, limiting the number of candidates in a primary to two.

Thankfully, that didn’t go anywhere, but it demonstrated how contentious Utah’s nominating systems remain, particularly in the Republican Party. Six years ago, lawmakers passed SB54, which allows people the option of getting on the party’s primary ballots by gathering signatures on a petition, as an alternative to the traditional route through the state convention. The bill has survived court challenges, and it has produced some winners out of candidates who were rejected by convention delegates, but many party faithful have never accepted it.

All that aside, however, if the state is going to proceed on its current path, it ought to find a solution to the multiple candidate issue.

Suppose Cox and Jon Huntsman Jr., the second-place finisher, were to compete in a runoff six weeks from now. Each of them would have to focus on ways to broaden their appeal to gain votes from among supporters of the two candidates who were eliminated, Greg Hughes and Thomas Wright. That would mean making promises that reflect the concerns of those voters.

Or suppose the election that ended June 30 had used a ranked-choice system. Voters would have been able to rank the four candidates in order of preference. When the ballots were counted, the last-place finisher would have been eliminated, and the second-place choices his supporters marked would have been distributed among the three remaining candidates. The process would have continued eliminating candidates in this manner until someone had more than 50%.

Two Utah cities, Vineyard and Payson, used this system for last year’s municipal elections. Other states are gradually adopting it. A side benefit is that campaigns under this system are more civil. Rather than offend supporters of a rival, candidates want to vie to be those supporters’ second choice.

These methods have their problems, as well. Under a ranked-choice system, someone could win on the strength of mainly second-place votes, which would hardly be a mandate. Critics say a runoff election tends to attract fewer voters than a primary, which raises questions about empowering a tiny part of the electorate.

No, there is no perfect democratic system. And yes, attracting several candidates to a primary ballot is a sign of a healthy democracy.

Perhaps this problem was unique in 2020 because both the governor’s office and the 1st Congressional District were wide open, with no incumbents running. Perhaps we won’t see this again for years.

But just in case, it makes sense to find a solution for when we do.